The teen years are all about seeking independence and peer acceptance. Teens are enthralled with peers they deem to be ‘popular.’ Since teen popularity is often associated with having freedom from adult restrictions, it is not unusual for teens to be drawn to peers who project a certain level of bold independence. But what is it that actually determines who children gravitate to during these critical years? Though innate traits clearly play a role, the role that self-confidence plays should not be underestimated. When children have a healthy dose of self-confidence, they are less likely to be unduly influenced by others and are better able to make sound judgements by balancing peer ‘intrigue’ with common sense.
As friendships and peer relations take a front seat, parents may be relegated to the back seat – even the trunk! When observing their child(ren) gravitating towards peers who exhibit concerning behaviors, it is not uncommon for parents to find their well-intended objections met with fierce resistance (You don’t trust me; You treat me like a baby; You’re so old-fashioned). Today parental concerns are compounded by the prevalence of social media relationships. Children are regularly communicating on their devices, behind closed doors, with peers who may or may not be known to their parents. This can be especially problematic for teens who have not adequately developed a strong sense of self. Teens who seek acceptance from certain peers/peer groups as a means of elevating their own level of self-confidence are at greater risk of forming potentially unhealthy relationships.
Self-confidence evolves from within. In previous generations, children were necessary and important participants in the maintenance of daily family life - the quality of which was largely dependent upon group effort. As such, children developed trust in their own abilities, hence, self-confidence. Many parents today spend an inordinate amount of time making life ‘comfortable’ for their children (i.e., providing them with too many toys, offering rewards in exchange for good behavior, catering to whims…). To be fair, parents are not the only ones who indulge children. In one school district, elementary physical education teachers reported being directed to avoid activities that involved competition citing competitive activities could negatively impact student self-confidence. I can just see my grandparents turning over in their graves!
So, what can parents do to ensure that their children develop a healthy level of self-confidence (as opposed to an excessive level that equates to an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance)? The short answer: Nothing. Thanks to ‘free will,’ parents cannot ensure that their children develop a healthy level of self-confidence any more than they can ensure that their children will become successful adults. They can, however, set the stage for healthy development by demonstrating unconditional love for their children, leading by example, setting/enforcing age-appropriate boundaries and nurturing areas in which their children display interest or talent.
As much as parents may want to help (and we do), self-confidence is simply not something parents can ‘provide.’ The good news is that those struggling with a lack of self-confidence can change the trajectory. Self-confidence is gained through experiences that require each individual to problem solve and navigate challenges independently, with the least amount of outside intervention. It is in experiencing successes and failures that a healthy level of self-confidence is developed. Unless safety is an issue, when children apply problem-solving strategies that prove less than effective, rather than overly assuaging, a simple pat on the back or brief word of reassurance should suffice - no excess parent intervention needed!
© Sharon Knapp Lamberth, June 2022